The Blog

He's No Stupak

Ben Nelson caves on taxpayer funding of abortion.

2:30 PM, Dec 19, 2009 • By JAMES C. CAPRETTA and YUVAL LEVIN
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In a radio interview on Thursday, Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson boasted that, compared to some of his colleagues, he was a "cheap date," holding out as he was as a matter of principle and not for some outlandish dropping of federal largesse in Nebraska.

Now that Senator Nelson has announced his intention to vote to end debate on the Reid bill, it's worth looking at whether his actions match his words.

For days, Senator Nelson insisted that his pressing concern was abortion. He didn't like the language in the Reid legislation that would effectively allow taxpayer subsidies to flow to insurance plans covering elective abortions. He told his colleagues and his home state pro-life supporters that he wouldn't settle for anything less than Hyde-like language, such as was successfully pushed by Democratic Rep. Bart Stupak in the House.

The model here is the federal employees health benefits program (FEHBP). Taxpayer money pays for a large portion of the health insurance premium for federal workers. Consequently, the law has, for many years, prohibited any insurance plan participating in the program from offering coverage of elective abortions. That's right. No Member of Congress, even ardent pro-abortion advocates, is allowed to sign up with an insurance plan that pays for abortion-on-demand. This is long-standing and settled policy, and has not been all that controversial with the public for many years.

The new insurance exchanges would, like FEHBP, offer various insurance plans to enrollees, and for the vast majority of participants, federal subsidies would pay for a portion of the premium. Pro-lifers have rightly insisted that as the federal government "manages" and subsidizes insurance choices for more people, an FEHBP-like restriction is what's needed, and that's exactly what Rep. Stupak's amendment would accomplish.

But that's not what's in the new Reid bill. The new Reid language that Senator Nelson now finds acceptable would allow federal subsidies to flow to plans that cover elective abortions in the insurance exchanges. Senate Democrats try to create the impression that only the enrollees' premiums will pay for the abortion coverage. But it's an artificial bookkeeping exercise. Taxpayer funding would support the same insurance policies that pay for abortions. Senator Nelson is touting the fact that states can enact laws which prohibit elective abortions in the exchanges (the so-called "opt out"), but that was already permissible under the previous Reid language. And in any event a state can't protect its taxpayers from financing abortions beyond its borders. Senator Nelson's "compromise" leaves Nebraska's voters entirely vulnerable to paying for California's and New York's abortions.

What's worse, one of the two "national" plans overseen by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and offered in the state-based exchanges would explicitly cover elective abortions unless a state fully opted out.

And this is after days of Senator Nelson supposedly representing pro-life interests behind Harry Reid's closed doors. One can only imagine how much worse it would be if he were still "negotiating."

It appears, however, that Senator Nelson had a bit more leverage in other areas of the bill. Beginning in 2017, the federal government will pay 100 percent of the costs for new Medicaid enrollees in Nebraska. No other state gets such treatment. You have to wonder what senators from other states (and their constituents) will think of such a deal. At least Senator Nelson can say he didn't sell out his pro-life concerns on the cheap.

A winter storm is burying Washington today. There might be a foot or two of accumulation before it's all over. Probably as good a day as any to discover Senator Nelson's recent pronouncements were nothing but a snow job.

James C. Capretta is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a health policy consultant. Yuval Levin, also a fellow at EPPC, is the editor of National Affairs.